I live about 7 minutes’ drive from the headquarters of Al Gore’s innovative Current TV in San Francisco, yet my cable system, Astound, still doesn’t carry the channel. So when I was visiting my parents last summer in St. Louis, I made a point of checking it out. The first thing I saw was a cartoon spoof of social networking sites called Social Networking Wars, wherein a slacker argues with animated logos for Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and Second Life, who are all fighting for his attention.
At one point, a cartoon version of MySpace founder Tom Anderson (who is by default everyone’s friend on MySpace) flies in to explain the attraction of his service:
“I am the Tom. I founded MySpace on three basic principles: 1) Skanky pictures of skanky people doing skanky things; 2) crappy bands; and 3) profile pages that you can customize into an incoherent garbled mess of flashing pictures and Jack Johnson videos. That’s what MySpace is all about.”
It was one of those rare laugh-out-loud cartoons that I just had to forward to friends and colleagues. The clip is part of a series on Current called SuperNews, produced by self-taught animator Josh Faure-Brac (pronounced “four-brock”), who cut his teeth at the vaunted D.E.N. (Digital Entertainment Network) in Los Angeles during the dot-com boom. While SuperNews started out with political spoofs of George Bush circa 2005, it has found even more appeal online by tackling tech subjects such as Texting Your Way to Love and Gates vs. Jobs.
Because Current TV’s format is a piece-meal of sub-10-minute clips that are mixed and matched each hour, Faure-Brac has never been able to gauge how big his TV audience is. But the Internet has provided the perfect instant feedback loop.
“If something does well online, that’s like a high Nielsen rating for us,” Faure-Brac told me. “Some of our shorts have got into the millions of views. Our most popular clip is the Immigration Debate cartoon that is pushing 3 million views [on YouTube]. But some of them might get 10,000. It’s almost as if the Internet is acting as a live studio audience. With a live audience, a comedian can know if something is funny or not. With the Internet, we can know if something is funny or not within a day or two.”
Faure-Brac, 35, explained his streamlined process of doing Flash “puppet-style” animation, which allows him to turn around a new three-minute cartoon in a day (as long as it has previously drawn characters). He is the head honcho, producer and writer for SuperNews and does most of the character voices as well. Faure-Brac told me he’s in build-out mode in preparation for 10 half-hour shows for Current slated to run starting in late January, and now has six full-time staff along with freelancers. The following is an edited version of our recent phone conversation.
When did you start making animations and how did you get into it?
Faure-Brac: I started making animations about eight years ago. I produced a cartoon for Romp.com back in the Internet boom, the heyday of Internet shows, when Icebox was around and everyone was pitching web shows. It’s what they’re doing again now. I was never trained in animation, it was just a hobby of mine. My influences were Berkeley Breathed of ‘Bloom County’ and Bill Watterson of ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ and Gary Larson of ‘The Far Side’ and Dan Piraro of ‘Bizarro.’ I considered being a panel cartoonist but just never really pursued it because I was playing in bands and skateboarding and doing other things.
When I moved to L.A., I basically lied my way into a computer job, and learned how to program and learned Cold Fusion. I was hired by D.E.N. — I don’t know if you remember the notorious Digital Entertainment Network — but I was just a lowly programmer and wasn’t at any of the hot tub parties back then. I was able to explore my creative side, and started producing more content for them and learned a little bit of Flash and animation.
When [D.E.N.] hit the iceberg and the Titanic sank, I went over and pitched this idea to Romp.com. They bought ‘Bill & Ted,’ an animation I produced about Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy sharing an apartment. It was the strange cartoon of a stoner and a drunk who would have these adventures together and go annoy George Bush. I produced that out of my apartment in Venice Beach. I had never animated before but with Flash it was so easy to figure out how to crudely animate stuff, so I animated it myself.
The Lost Adventures Of Bill and Ted Episode 12/13
Have you done that work mainly as a freelancer or have you worked anywhere full-time?
Faure-Brac: I was staffed for two seasons on a show no one had ever heard of called ILL-ustrated on VH-1, an animated sketch comedy show. I wrote for it, and did voices on it for a couple years, and the head of programming at Current had seen my cartoons and was looking for a news-based or political short-form cartoon. His idea was that I animate the headlines, and he gave me a few ideas and I ran with it from there.
It turned into more than just political or news commentary and became broader social commentary, and I’m much more interested in that. That led to a lot of technology commentary, which is a lot of fun, and lends itself to animation and works really well online. So we’ll be doing a lot more of it.
Are you working full-time for Current TV now?
Faure-Brac: Yes, I’m full-time for Current, and we’re actually in pre-production for our first season of half-hour shows. SuperNews will shift to a half-hour show, and we are working on 10 shows that will launch in late January. Current isn’t a normal network, and they weren’t prepared to have hit half-hour shows, so I had a real skeleton crew working with me. It’s been built up a lot more, and I don’t do the character designs anymore, and I’m not as hands-on with the animation as I used to be.
We’re building the staff up and using a lot of the concepts you’ve seen on our previous shorts, like the ‘Social Networking Wars.’ We’re taking those characters of Friendster, MySpace and Facebook and having them live in an apartment together, a la ‘Three’s Company’ with a laugh track. They’re always trying to get girls over, and trying to keep Friendster out of the loop.
It seems like Current is moving more toward half hours and away from the bits-and-pieces approach.
Faure-Brac: The reason it will still work well is that we’ll still be doing shorts, so it’s not stopping me from doing the format that works well online. It will still be broken up into parts online, just like ‘Saturday Night Live’ does with its sketch pieces. You take the strongest pieces and break them up individually online, and hope they go viral.
I saw you had one half-hour show online called SuperNews Does the Internet, where you strung together shorts…
Faure-Brac: That was a lot of fun, and we mixed in live-action scenes [with me acting in them], but I don’t think that’s the direction they want to go. They’d rather have me doing animation. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not as attractive as all their other hosts…[laughs]. I’m really excited about it, because it will make everything better. When I was writing the cartoons, I had to think of them as being on TV at random times during Current programming. There would be a documentary on starving children, and then one of my silly cartoons, and it would feel a little bit weird. So with a whole half hour we don’t have to go in and out of bits with a longer short-form feeling — we can break them apart or treat it more like a sketch comedy show.
How long does it take for you to do a five-minute animation? I’m guessing it varies from piece to piece.
Faure-Brac: It depends on how complex the animation is. If it’s all new characters, it takes about a week and a half or two weeks. If it’s existing characters, we’ve turned around a three-minute animation in about a day. The system that we built allows us to turn around things really quickly.
It’s Flash puppet style animation, and we build these [digital] puppets and by the way we draw them… we basically only have one symbol for the face that we use. It’s not frame-by-frame animation, but it just works with just one symbol for the face with a flight three-quarters — so you can flip the head. We have built such a large library with background characters and body parts, so we can pull from things we have created in the past and make new characters pretty easily.
How does Flash puppet style work?
Faure-Brac: Imagine you’re looking at a marionette. There are a lot of pieces with a full character…You drag that marionette onto the timeline [in Flash], and then you frame-by-frame manipulate it. In order to make it move around, you’re not necessarily drawing a lot of new stuff. You’re just creating keyframes and you’re posing out the body on a keyframe and you’re going to the next pose and posing the body, and then someone comes along and smoothes out those poses afterwards. So it has some sort of fluid animation.
For the most part, you’re seeing a 2D puppet being manipulated on a timeline. For more complicated sequences, we’ll do more frame-by-frame animation, but for the most part, we’re doing this marionette-style puppet animation. Just about our whole show is done in Flash with the occasional After Effects tweak.
We love [covering topics] on technology because it’s not nerd stuff anymore, it affects absolutely everyone. And I don’t think anyone in the comedy world has touched it very much, and animation lends itself to taking on these things. It’s a lot of fun to do. We’re at a time where every hipster has a blog, and just being hip is synonymous with being tech-savvy these days. Every part of our lives is caught up — whether it’s dating or interacting with friends — in technology, and as we slowly turn into cyborgs, I’d like to have a little fun with it.
With social networks, I take it you’ve been on a lot of them over the years?
Faure-Brac: Oh yeah, I’m old school. I was on one of the first social network/dating sites, HotorNot.com, which had some elements of social networking, and of course I was on Friendster when it came out. And then I made the move from Friendster to MySpace and then MySpace to Facebook. It’s a bit arbitrary. ‘Where are the lemmings going? Oh, they’re going to MySpace! OK, that sounds good. I just got Friendster figured out, but if that’s where the lemmings are going, that’s where I need to be.’
Have you seen any correlation between how much something gets played on TV and how popular it is online? Or does it depend on the subject matter?
Faure-Brac: I think it’s what the subject is and how timely we are. If we hit a note that no one is hitting yet, that matters. And if it’s being made for a really rabid niche audience… When we did the Gates vs. Jobs one, we knew that there were passionate PC people and passionate Mac people, and that war is just a mighty battle. Even though the subject has been touched upon before, I thought that if we executed it really well, all of those people would watch it. And it worked and got passed around, and was shown at a Mac convention and other computer conventions.
It’s taking on a subject matter before everyone else does, and that’s getting harder and harder to do, because the second something happens, you see someone’s crappy comedy video up there. You’re always in this race with every other — not just professional comedy writers — but little Johnny in the middle of nowhere doing their parody videos as well. If something happens, if we don’t feel we have a great angle, we might just ignore it.
Have your technology and social networking spoofs done better than the political ones or vice versa?
Faure-Brac: They’ve done a lot better than the political ones. I think it’s a lesson to be learned. Anything with original characters does pretty well, because there are already so many people doing live-action political comedy — there’s been a ton of it this last year. With ‘Saturday Night Live’ killing it all the time… Plus, when ‘Lil Bush’ came on, it felt like the subject was a little inundated with George Bush cartoons. Creatively it was good for me because I got to shift around and do other things.
You could say that the Immigration Debate is a highly charged political topic, but I didn’t put any faces from today in it, and it’s our most viewed episode. I think it’s all about the concept. The Immigration Debate of 1621 is just like an instantly grab-you idea, whereas George Bush having a conversation in his office about a recent headline is kind of…whatever.
Is Current doing promotion for your clips or do you do that yourself?
Faure-Brac: Not really. There’s a little bit of outreach on occasion, but it’s really us trying to email the right people. We have enough followers of our show, that when we have a good one, they make sure to pass it around and that gets the ball rolling. We’ve been featured on YouTube quite a few times. We get featured in the Politics section or whatever is appropriate. But with the TV network, there isn’t a well-oiled machine that’s reaching out. It’s fairly organic when something goes viral.
With the Internet special and the Internet Porn & You clip, Digg was huge for us. It rose to the top of the Digg ranks, and it had a lot of comments on the message boards, and that helped that clip go big. We have had links from Democratic Underground and political blogs that get the ball rolling. The texting one, I think every female blogger in America linked to it. These certain niche areas will pass them around if they’re right for that group.
It still seems like getting on TV is the best way to make money.
Faure-Brac: Yeah, you need to build something that you can sell. TV is still king. You know who is doing well online are TV shows like ‘The Office’ which is making clips just for the Internet. And ‘Saturday Night Live’ has a handful of clips ready to go viral the next day. There are a lot of TV shows doing well going to the web, but not so much the other way around.
I’m looking forward to the half-hour with SuperNews because we’re going to do something that’s pretty unique, that hasn’t been done on TV before. An animated show that’s like ‘Mr. Show’ meets ‘South Park’ is a good description, because it will be smart social satire and the pieces will blend together. The overall mandate from the network is that it covers politics, pop culture and social satire, with 80% topical and 20% evergreen like the “Texting Your Way to Love” piece. It will be edgier and funnier than the stuff we’ve done — tackling big issues in an interesting way.
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